Practice Settings

Practice Settings

Law firms share numerous characteristics. They are for-profit associations of lawyers in the business of servicing the needs of their clients. They are typically organized as partnerships, with the partners receiving a share of the profits at the end of each fiscal year, and the associates receiving a salary. Most law firms utilize a pyramid structure, with a base of junior level associates, fewer senior associates, and a small number of partners at the top of the pyramid.

When referring to law firms, people often categorize them by size. However, the description of a law firm as “large,” “mid-size,” or “small” is directly tied to its location. In New York City for example, many law firms have more than 600 attorneys in the NYC office alone, and sometimes more than 2,000 attorneys in all offices combined. In Indianapolis, IN, on the other hand, the largest firms in the city have around 200 lawyers. As a result, it is impossible to characterize a firm’s size without also understanding its geographic location. 

Practice Setting Types

Large law firms in major metropolitan areas have organized summer programs for which they will hire many second-year students and a handful of first-year students as “summer associates.” These firms typically make permanent job offers to their second-year summer associates in the hopes of having them return upon their graduation or upon completion of a judicial clerkship. Most second-year students interested in large law firm practice interview and secure offers through CDO’s on campus Interview Program.  Smaller and regional law firms tend to hire students on a later time frame, and often only when they have a particular need. First-year students seeking law firm employment should commence that outreach in December.

The clients serviced by large firms are most often large multinational corporations. To serve their clients’ needs, these firms are usually organized into many departments, with corporate and litigation often the two largest. Smaller departments may include tax, employee benefits (ERISA), real estate, bankruptcy, trusts and estates, intellectual property, and public finance. Because many of the legal matters addressed by these firms are substantial in size and often complex, cases are typically staffed with many attorneys. As a result, junior associates often work with a team of attorneys on a particular matter, and receive assignments and report to a more senior associate who then reports to the partner in charge of the matter. Because these firms have longstanding client relationships, associates (and sometimes even partners) are expected to handle the work of existing clients without worrying about generating new business.

Most of the companies that hire these firms are involved in business transactions that are both national and international in scope. As a result, these firms often have offices in more than one location in the U.S. and in cities throughout the world. In many firms, all of the offices operate similarly in terms of the nature of their work, the clients they serve, the salaries their attorneys earn, and the hours that they work. Other firms are comprised of many offices that operate more independently of each other. Students should research these issues on a firm-by-firm basis. For more about international offices, see the International Firms tab.

Large law firms are a popular destination for Yale law students and graduates. The majority of Yale law students spend all or part of the summer after their second year with a large firm in a major metropolitan area—most typically in New York, DC or California. Many of these students commence full-time employment with these firms after graduation or after a judicial clerkship. Results from CDO’s 5th Year Career Development Survey indicate that around 45% of graduates work for law firms five years after graduation.

Yale law students and graduates choose large firm employment for a variety of reasons, including their interest in living in a large metropolitan area; the perception that these firms have sophisticated practices, rigorous training, and offer mobility in the future; the relative ease of finding employment with these law firms by virtue of their significant on-campus recruiting presence, early hiring timetable, and constant need for new hires; and the prospect of a high income. On the flip side, alumni report that some downsides of large firm practice include the billable hour expectations; the competitiveness (triggered by the fact that the chances of making partner are slim); the lack of control over work and time; and the limited client contact for junior associates. According to CDO’s 5th Year Career Development Survey, only one-quarter of law firm respondents report being very satisfied with their jobs. These practitioners most frequently cite inability to balance work and life, lack of control over work, and high billable hour expectations as reasons for their lack of job satisfaction.

  • ALM Legal Intelligence Surveys, Lists and Rankings (click on “surveys, lists and rankings” if not taken there automatically). ALM provides access to rankings from publications like The American Lawyer, Corporate Counsel, and the National Law Journal. Popular rankings include the A List; AmLaw 100 and 200; Global 100; Midlevel Associate Survey; Pro Bono Survey; and Summer Associate Survey. 
  • Chambers and Partners. The Chambers Guides rank lawyers and law firms within practice areas. Select from Chambers UK, Global, Europe, U.S., Asia Pacific or Latin America. Each guide is searchable by geographic location and practice area. Within each practice area, Chambers ranks firms by designating them as “Band 1– 6,” with Band 1 ranking highest.
  • The NALP Directory of Legal Employers. Offers information about demographics, salaries, practice areas, hiring needs and employment plans of law firms, public interest organizations, government agencies, and corporations throughout the United States. This is also the best resource for locating recruiting director name and contact information for outreach.
  • Vault/Firsthand (After creating an account, students can access Vault’s multitude of law firm rankings and can also view and download PDF versions of many career guides, including the Guide to the Top 100 Law Firms, guides to top firms by location, and guides to firms by practice area.
  • Yale Law Student Summer Employment Evaluations. Use these evaluations to get the inside scoop on law firms from your fellow students. These evaluations are available through CDO’s Career Management System.

Unlike large firms in major metropolitan areas, whose clients are often international in scope, mid-size firms thrive on generating business from regional clients. These firms typically represent both corporate clients and individual clients in a broad array of legal areas, including real estate, general corporate and litigation, environmental law, trusts and estates, and employment law. Cases are typically staffed with fewer lawyers than in a large firm setting, commonly with an associate and a partner handling each matter. As a result, associates often receive more client contact and a role in decision-making earlier in their careers than their colleagues in the larger firms. Mid-size firms sometimes expect senior associates to bring in clients. This usually means taking an active role in the community to develop relationships with potential clients.

Because their clients are typically regional in scope, the legal work conducted by mid-size firms is dependent on the legal issues prevalent in their area of the country. For example, oil and gas law is a common specialty in Texas; tech law and intellectual property (patent, trademark, copyright, licensing) are common in Silicon Valley; water rights is predominant in Western states; appellate, regulatory and lobbying work abounds in Washington, DC; and financial and international work tends to be most prevalent in New York.

Many of the resources listed in the large firm section above will also provide information about mid-size firms. In addition, go to Firsthand and click “Vault's Law Rankings” to view Vault’s Best Midsize Law Firms to Work For and the Top 150 under 150. The National Law Journal authors the Midsize Hot List that is available to students through ALM Legal Intelligence by clicking the “Surveys" tab. This site must be accessed through Yale’s VPN. Another useful resource is www.martindale.com, an online directory of law firms containing information about firms of all sizes. Search for law firms by name, location, practice area and/or firm size. Search for lawyers by name, location, practice area and/or law school attended.

Although much attention is paid to large firms, there are myriad non “Big Law” firms involved in all areas of legal work. Unlike large firms that have relatively standard practices around summer opportunities, full-time post-graduate offers, salaries, and billable hours, non “Big Law” firms take varying approaches to all of these issues. For example, some non “Big Law” firms align their pay with nonprofit pay ($40,000 range); some pay like federal government ($60,000 range); and a few approach the starting salary of large corporate firms ($215,000 range). Due diligence is required to learn about a particular firm’s approach to recruiting.

Small Firms

Small law firm practitioners can serve as generalists or can focus on particular areas of the law, such as intellectual property, tax, real estate, or family law. Some small firms tend to be truly general practice firms, handling everything from tort matters to wills to divorces. Typical areas of practice for smaller firms include employment, family, trusts and estates, personal injury and criminal law. There are also smaller firms with practices that are very similar to large law firms. The differences are that the matters are often on a smaller scale and there are fewer people to handle the work. Because smaller firms may charge lower fees for their services, they attract more individual clients than corporate clients. Attorneys with smaller firms often have more autonomy, more substantive work earlier in their careers, and more client contact than their counterparts in larger law firms. Attorneys in these firms are usually expected to bring clients to the firm more quickly than they would in the large firm setting. Although this is a generalization, smaller firms often place more emphasis on balancing work and personal time and less emphasis on billable hours. This is not to say that small firm practitioners do not work hard. In some firms, they work just as many hours as attorneys in large firms. Attorneys in smaller firms are usually not earning the same salaries as their counterparts in larger firms.

Boutique Firms

Boutique law firms concentrate on one particular area of practice. For example, some boutique firms concentrate solely on issues relating to intellectual property, others focus only on labor and employment. There are some advantages in working for a boutique firm, including the ability to work with and learn from experts in the field; the added respect from clients, fellow practitioners, and often judges who assume that boutique lawyers know about their field; and the high salaries that many boutique firms offer to attract attorneys with specialized skills. The disadvantages include the lack of exposure to other areas of the law in which you may have an interest; the potential inability to address tangential legal issues faced by a client; and the possibility that significant statutory or economic changes will eliminate the need for your practice.

Public Interest/Plaintiff’s Firms

A public interest law firm is a private, for-profit association of lawyers with a mission of assisting underrepresented people or causes. Clients are often chosen based on their need for the firm’s services, and the cause their claim relates to, and not their ability to pay. Sliding scale fees, attorney fee cases, and contingent fee cases are common. Typical areas of practice include employment discrimination, consumer rights, civil rights, criminal defense, environmental law, and disability rights. Some plaintiffs’ firms focus on standard personal injury work, while others handle claims with broader social issues, such as defective consumer products. While some people may not view plaintiff’s work as public interest in nature, others see it as serving the needs of the underrepresented individual against more powerful institutions. Because these firms are often quite small, associates often receive significant responsibility early in their careers.

Use the following resources to learn more about these types of firms:

  • CDO’s Specialized Law Firms List, which includes information about alumni who work for the firms and students who summered at the firms.
  • The Courtyard, Yale Law School’s alumni engagement platform. Click “Explore the Community” then “More Filters” then “Employer Type(s)” and select “Law Firm – Public Interest Focus” to locate alumni with experience in public interest focused firms.
  • Harvard’s Private Public Interest Law and Plaintiff’s Firm Guide, which provides information and advice, along with a Private Public Interest and Plaintiffs’ Firm Directory.
  • www.psjd.org has info about public interest law firms. Select the Organization Type “Law Firm—Public Interest Focus/Practice.” To narrow your search further you can select particular practice areas. Each entry provides contact information, an organization description, a link to the employer’s web site if available, and a link to opportunities if available.
  • Vault Law contains law firm rankings by practice area in the “Law Rankings” section. The IP Specialty, Labor and Employment, and Litigation Specialty sections provide info about boutique/specialized firms. Vault also ranks midsize law firms and has a Top 150 Under 150 list.
  • The National Law Journal authors the Appellate Hot List, IP Litigation Hot List, Litigation Boutiques Hot List, and Plaintiffs Hot List which are available to students through ALM Legal Intelligence by clicking the “Surveys” tab. This site must be accessed through Yale’s VPN.
  • www.martindale.com, an online directory of law firms containing information about firms of all sizes. Search for law firms by name, location, practice area and/or firm size. Search for lawyers by name, location, practice area and/or law school attended.
  • The interview process. Ultimately, you may need to rely more heavily on the interview process itself to get a good sense of the firms that are best suited to you.

Many YLS students express interest in practicing “international law.” In a law firm setting, this may mean working for a U.S. law firm in the U.S.; working in the foreign office of a U.S. law firm; working for an international law firm either in the U.S. or abroad; or working for a foreign law firm. U.S. law firms with international offices and international law firms (usually U.K. law firms such as Allen & Overy, Linklaters, and Freshfields) are the most likely to hire lawyers trained in the U.S. The clients serviced by these firms are usually companies based in the U.S. or conducting business in the U.S. As a result, these firms need lawyers trained in the U.S. to assist these international clients with their legal work. Foreign law firms, on the other hand, typically assist foreign clients who conduct little business in the U.S. These firms need lawyers trained and certified in their own countries. That said, lawyers assisting with international ventures may be asked to deal not only with U.S. law, but also with the equivalent laws in the other countries involved in the transaction. In these situations, U.S.-trained lawyers will typically seek the assistance of foreign lawyers. Occasionally, U.S. lawyers will become admitted to the Bar in a foreign jurisdiction.

In deciding whether to commence your legal career in the U.S. or abroad, there are a variety of factors to consider. By working for some period of time with the main U.S. office of a firm, you are likely to benefit from the training programs and the legal expertise of the attorneys, receive the most sophisticated legal work in a broader array of legal issues, establish a network in the U.S. that may prove useful in the future, and find it easier to make a lateral move to another U.S. law firm. However, there can also be some benefits to commencing your legal career abroad. You are likely to have immediate access to a specialized area of international work and develop an expertise in that field, and you will more easily have the opportunity to network with other international practitioners. In addition, the sooner that foreign language skills are acquired and mastered, the sooner you will be able to negotiate deals, provide sophisticated legal advice on the laws of a non-U.S. jurisdiction, and generally become an indispensable element in transnational deals.

Typical areas of practice of international lawyers include international corporate (particularly mergers and acquisitions, technology and financial transactions), international dispute resolution, and international trade. International corporate practice often encompasses technology issues, because an increasing portion of the U.S. international presence is driven by this sector. Financial transactions often involve international law, as more companies in the U.S. turn to the international capital markets for raising capital and foreign companies seek capital and the prestige accorded by listing on a U.S. exchange. However, not all international work is corporate in nature. Another area of practice where U.S.-trained lawyers are highly visible is in international arbitration, which involves an alternative way of resolving disputes, usually between companies from different countries. Initially seen as less formalized and more rapid than traditional litigation, international arbitration is particularly popular in complex areas such as construction, infrastructure projects, and contracts involving public-sector entities. A U.S. lawyer working abroad can practice in this area without being admitted to the Bar of the country in which she or he resides, which makes it a particularly appealing field. Litigating in a foreign country is yet another option but, unlike arbitration, requires admission to the local Bar as well as an excellent command of the local language, since the overseas litigator will be drafting pleadings, analyzing the evidence and arguing before judges in the local language and invoking principles of local law. Lastly, international trade law is another area of private international practice. International trade involves transactions for goods and services that cross national boundaries. Trade practice involves both the Commerce Department, which decides whether imports are being sold at a fair price, and the International Trade Commission, which decides whether imports cause or threaten injury to a U.S. industry. In the U.S., this practice is centered in Washington, DC, where most law firms have a trade practice; in Europe, much of this work takes place in Brussels (as well as the national capitals).

Many U.S. law firms provide their international associates with salaries comparable to their U.S. associates. In addition, some firms will pay a cost of living allowance to associates living in expensive international cities such as London. Generally, U.S. associates working abroad earn more than their international associate counterparts working for international firms. Because firms have varying salary structures for their international associates, it is important to discuss this topic prior to accepting an international position.

In addition to the resources listed in the other law firm sections, use the following resources to learn more about public interest law firms:

  • Chambers and Partners offers numerous international law firm directories covering the U.S., Europe, the U.K., Latin America and more. The online databases are searchable by firm name, individual attorney name, geographic location and practice area. In the practice area section, Chambers provides an overview of the practice area, ranks firms based on the practice area, and describes the work of each firm listed.
  • IFLR1000 is an online guide to the world’s leading financial and corporate law firms. The guide provides law firm and lawyer rankings by practice area and jurisdiction. After registering for free, select a region and then a particular financial practice area (including capital markets, M&A, project finance, private equity) to view rankings and descriptions of firms active in those areas.
  • To learn about U.S. law firms with international offices, the NALP Directory is a helpful tool. On the main search screen, check the “Law Firm” box and hit search. Then, in the sidebar “Refine/Save Your Search,” scroll down to “Other Location” and then enter the international city or country name. The search results will include all NALP law firms with an international office in the location you selected.
  • The ABA Section of International Law maintains a list of international law firms interested in hiring JD and LLM students for summer legal internships.  Most positions are volunteer, although some employers offer stipends.
  • CDO has compiled a list of foreign offices that have employed YLS students in the past 10 years.

Practice Area Resources

Within each law firm practice setting, there are a multitude of legal areas of practice available to pursue. Here is a list of resources to help you learn about law firm practice areas.